Government Bytes


As Deficit Grows, So Too Does Need for a Balanced Budget Amendment

by Brandon Greife / /

“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” So writes former Senator Judd Gregg in a Tuesday op-ed arguing against conditioning an increase to the debt ceiling on passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution. It is an interesting choice of words for Sen. Gregg, given they were originally written by Voltaire, an intellectual anchor of the Era of Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the op-ed does little to add an enlightened viewpoint to the debate over how best to eliminate our staggering budget deficit.

Sen. Gregg is no stranger to using historical quotes to hammer home his points. What is strange is his stance against the Balanced Budget Amendment. Previously, Sen. Gregg has acknowledged that a BBA is a useful, if not necessary, tool in eradicating Washington’s propensity to spend. For instance in a 1995 speech on the Senate floor, Gregg stated

“James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51: “Government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern man, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

But “here in Washington there are few, if any angels,” said Gregg. “We do require a control mechanism to reduce our current fiscal dilemma – a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.”

In the years since Sen. Gregg left office he has apparently changed his tune. In his op-ed he calls a Balanced Budget Amendment a “bit of ‘conservative’ misdirection,” an “act of gamesmanship,” and an “excuse to avoid the difficult votes.” His main objection appears to be the length of time it would take to usher a BBA through the House and the Senate and achieve ratification by 37 states. “It takes years, if not decades, to accomplish such a feat,” he writes.

Such arguments have been made before. And while it is true that it would take several years to ratify a BBA, the mountain is not as steep as it might first look. Thirty two states have already, at one time or another, called upon Congress to convene a Constitutional Convention for the purposes of drafting a BBA. Furthermore, Sen. Gregg fails to mention that had the Senate followed the House’s lead in 1995 and passed the BBA, the measure could very well have been ratified an operating for the better part of a decade by now.

Of course, having voted for the Amendment in 1995, he should know this better than anyone. In fact, he spoke of the “problem” of ratification by saying,

“Let us remember that should we pass this joint resolution . . . it would still not be law until it had been ratified by 38 states, and that would engender a tremendous, vibrant, and appropriate debate across this country to the appropriateness of a balanced budget amendment. That debate would be good. It would be excellent, and it would involve the people of this Nation in deciding their own future. . .”

That vibrant debate is exactly what America so desperately needs. Instead, it seems clear that Gregg, along with many Republican leaders, want to purely focus on spending cuts. While the desire to reduce our bloated budget is laudable, spending cuts are but one piece of the solution needed to ensure that America doesn’t find itself right back on the brink of default in the near future. History shows that Congress simply does not have the willpower to make, and stick to, the long-term cuts that must be made. Instead, when the economy improves, when the politics become unfavorable, or when a so-called emergency arises, Congress is all too quick to whip out the credit card.

Sen. Gregg has also made this point before. “If the Congress wished to abate that debate and take steam out of the initiative,” he said in 1994, “the Congress could do so with relative ease by putting in place legislation which would address the long-term deficit. . . But we have not done that. We have not done it for 25 years.” 

There is no reason we should expect them to do it now. That is why the spending cuts, statutory spending caps, and a Balanced Budget Amendment, must all be included as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve fiscal sustainability. It is only through this cut, cap, and balance approach, that conservatives can “make the tough, important votes” which Gregg says are needed to “address our fiscal chaos.” 

Sen. Gregg began with the Voltaire quote, “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” Let me end with a quote from another Enlightenment thinker, Thomas Paine, who said “A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.” As the debt limit debate continues, conservatives must not fall prey to the allure of moderating their principles, they must support a Balanced Budget Amendment.